Broadband internet extended to rural areas! Canada saved!

This corner wants to depart from its usual practice of taking orders from Paul Zed just long enough to bring you this news release from the Prime Minister’s Office, in which we learn (well, in which we’re reminded) that the feds plan to spend $225 million over three years extending broadband internet access to rural and remote communities.

Ah, nostalgia.

Was it only eight years ago that this same issue — so obscure few even remember it was an issue — shattered Brian Tobin’s political career? Indeed it was. Here’s the story. In 2000 Tobin had been premier of Newfoundland for two quick terms and was yearning to get back to Ottawa. So in a dinner with Jean Chrétien he asked for the Industry portfolio, on the assumption that the only thing making Industry a sleepy file was John Manley. Chrétien accepted, Tobin was back in cabinet, Manley was bumped to Foreign Affairs, and after the 2000 election Tobin started looking around for an issue he could use to seem forward-looking and progressive and so on.

Enter the report of the National Broadband Task Force, with the not-at-all-portentous title The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Access. It suggested getting broadband out to farm, forest and tundra would cost $4 billion. Tobin promptly started agitating for $1 billion to launch the project in the next budget. You won’t believe how controversial all of this is. Probably you’ll have an easy time believing there were people who said, “Let’s not spend $1 billion on rural broadband.” What you’ll have a harder time believing that there were people arguing that if the feds didn’t spend $1 billion on rural broadband, the country was doomed.

Memory grows hazy here, so I stand to be corrected, but I think this is how the rest of the story goes. The finance minister, fellow by the name of Martin, didn’t want to put the money in the budget. Tobin put word around town that he was going higher than Martin: he was going straight to Eddie Goldenberg, damn it. By now we were into a post-9/11 period and Tobin actually gave a speech or two linking the courage of the fire crews at Ground Zero to the courage Canada must show by connecting rural Canadians to high-speed internet. They rushed in despite the risk. We too must rush in. Blah blah blah. It was a strange time. You have to understand.

Anyway, the budget comes out, and instead of a quick billion for high-speed internet, Martin announces $35 million a year for three years, starting in three years. A consummate wet firecracker. Tobin’s end run to Goldenberg had been for naught. This was an example of Jean Chrétien’s right-hand man standing by his finance minister, and as you might expect, that sort of behaviour earned Chrétien a lot of gratitude from Martin. Just kidding.

Anyway. I interviewed Tobin shortly after the budget, and he was fine, and the table scraps for broadband were great, and everything was going tickety-boo. And then just after the New Year he quit as Industry Minister and Member of Parliament. He hasn’t looked back. I ran into him at the big KISS concert during Bluesfest, and he is doing private-sector stuff and he never has to scrum and it’s all good. But once he wanted to be Prime Minister, and it was rural high-speed internet of all things that was supposed to help get him there, and now it’s Stephen Harper, of all people, announcing it. Funny old world.

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